Monday, February 2, 2015

We've Come a Long Way...Or Have We?

By all measures, she lived an extraordinary life.

She was a respected neuroscientist who spent ten years working in research at Yale Medical School and who established the neurophysiology department at the Royal Northshore Hospital in Sydney, Australia.

And when she found that she was being paid less than her male colleagues at Yale and that this was not negotiable, she decided to try writing to make a little extra money. Her first novel sold well and became a major motion picture. Her second novel was an international blockbuster and became the basis of the most-viewed television mini-series of all time. She went on to write 23 more well-reviewed and popular novels.

On a personal level, she overcame childhood emotional abuse to become a successful, warm and loving person, a supportive friend and mentor to several generations of writers and is survived by her loving husband of more than thirty years.

This brilliant, accomplished woman, of course, was Colleen McCullough, best known as the author of "The Thorn Birds", who died this past week at the age of 77.

Colleen McCullough  1937-2015

Because of her achievements, her death was international news.

What also has become international news is the first paragraph of an obituary that ran in The Australian, a national newspaper in her native land:

"Plain of feature and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview she said "I've never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men."

This emphasis on her looks, on her weight and on her ability to attract men, the implication that warmth and wit is something of a surprise in someone plain and overweight, has unleashed a furor as people around the world comment and tweet about society's inclination to over-emphasize how a woman looks instead what she does.

Too often, media coverage downplays real achievements and dwells on physical measurements, keeping us breathlessly up to date on curvy young women of minimal talent and scant accomplishment -- the Kardashian clan and Paris Hilton come to mind -- and sports commentators are still all too likely to mention a female athlete's looks as well as her abilities. The entertainment conglomerates' reach into the publishing world has meant that there is more pressure now on female authors to look glamorous. Those who do are on the covers or the back flap of their books. Those who don't stay invisible or get pressure to enhance their looks. Olivia Goldsmith, the author of a number of novels, including "The First Wives Club", claimed that her publisher was putting pressure on her to have a facelift, wondering if Norman Mailer or John Updike ever received such directives. She finally gave in, had the surgery and died from complications.

But times are changing,...aren't they?

More women than men are graduating from college and professional schools. We're seeing more women in the sciences, in the professions, as corporate CEOs. Help Wanted ads no longer differentiate between jobs available to men and those for women. There are world leaders who are female.  It's possible -- though not, for many reasons, a certainty -- that our next President of the United States could be a woman.

But Hillary has had her own struggles over the years both as First Lady and as a presidential candidate -- with unkind media ruminations about her pear shape and her pantsuits, about the likability factor, about whether she is too blonde or not blonde enough, and about whether she is too old (though she will be the same age in 2016 that Ronald Reagan was in 1980).

But I digress.

One would think that in death, when someone writes about a well-known person's life, that the person's accomplishments would be highlighted and looks irrelevant. That's how it is for males. But females, even in death, are too often seen through the prism of lookism and, in some instances, their fit with the stereotypical female role.

That was evident two years ago in obituaries for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill who, among many other professional accomplishments, invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites in orbit. She is believed to have been the only female rocket scientist in the 1940's when she worked on the first designs for an American satellite. In the 1980's, she developed the rocket engine for NASA's space shuttle. She won a number of awards, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, presented to her by President Obama in 2011.

Yet when she died two years later, one obituary started off with "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took years off from work to raise her three children..." Even her New York Times obituary emphasized her domestic achievements: "She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off work to raise three children."

Would a male rocket scientist ever be described similarly?

This isn't to say that a balanced life, well-raised children, a solid marriage and culinary skills aren't important. At the end of one's life, perhaps these are the things that matter most. Had she been able to read these accounts in advance, Yvonne Brill might have approved, valuing herself as a loving wife and mother first and foremost. She certainly would have been delighted to read her son's description of her as "the world's best mom".

But still, when a high achiever's life is summarized in the media, why is it that women are viewed so differently? And why does it sound so funny to hear a man described in the same way?

One encouraging sign that times are, indeed, changing have been the male voices joining the international outrage over Colleen McCullough's obituary, wondering why her brilliant mind rather than her ample body couldn't be emphasized and riffing on obituary leads for male historic figures who weren't handsome like William Shakespeare ("Though thin of nose and definitely balding....") or Winston Churchill ("He was a bit of a fat, ugly bloke but nevertheless did quite well for himself...") and wondering why we never expected Jonas Salk to look like Brad Pitt.

It's possible that Colleen McCullough, whose sense of humor was both earthy and expansive, might be amused by all the furor. She might well include her physical traits in a light-hearted self description.


But it's one thing when she herself would allude casually and humorously to her physical being and quite another when someone else makes her appearance the definitive thing about her.

It all goes to show that, while women have come a long way in the past 50 years or so, we still have a way to go.


  1. Hear, hear!! I agree with every word of this excellent post, Kathy. I too was outraged to read that obituary of Colleen McCullough, with its unkind and unnecessary opening sentence, and to learn that in her day women scientists at Yale were only paid half as much as the men. Yes, we've come a long way since then, but by no means far enough.

    1. Thanks, Perpetual! It's appalling to remember just how low women's salaries were back in the day. When I was working for a women's magazine, our receptionist went to work in that same position for one of the company's men's magazines and was suddenly making more money than our top female editor. It was our second clue that things were out of balance. (Our first clue was that all the male editors on the other magazines drove much newer and better cars than we did.) Colleen McCullough really showed them in her ability to succeed -- and make major money -- in her writing career!

  2. Sometimes I think that the problem isn't so much in the woman scientists' obit, but in the fact that they don't do men's the same way -- meaning, I think they should. He was a remarkable man who loved his family, pets and garden, while making innovative strides in engineering and science. Honestly, what IS important in life? But yes, with the Hillary example, I remember when every time she changed her hair, people went nuts. Michelle Obama's arms and dresses. Of course, when her husband wore that purple suit that looked like a Star Trek costume on his visit to China, he got his share of the bad wardrobe press, too!

    I understand and basically agree, but I think the whole model should be turned on its head and look at what really, truly matters in life.

    1. You make an excellent point, Jeanie. A balanced life is the ideal whatever one's gender and more articles and obituaries ought to reflect that. On the other hand, some high achieving people don't have such balance. I was reading a New York Times obit (yes, I must confess to reading them, checking out ages and causes of death on a regular basis) and I saw one the other day that I found fascinating. It was for a doctor who had been one of several instrumental in developing the birth control pill. His history was remarkable: An Austrian Jew, he fled Nazi-occupied Austria as a brilliant young teenager with the help of his father who had divorced his mother and moved to Bulgaria. He and his mother were penniless when they arrived in New York in 1939 and he wrote directly to Eleanor Roosevelt to ask for help. Mrs. Roosevelt arranged to him to get a college scholarship and he thrived from there. He had a great career, but, alas, three marriages and divorces. So balance is hard to find. We all struggle to some extent...which makes Mrs. Brill even more amazing.

  3. You are so right, Kathy! I didn't know that Colleen McCollough had died -- her novels about ancient Rome are among my absolute favourites. The quality of her research and illustrations which she did herself cannot be faulted.

  4. Such a well written post, Kathy. Isn't it sad that when an accomplished woman dies here entire life is summed up in the words...."She made a good stroganoff". Such a pity!!!!


    1. Indeed. That may certainly be a part of one's life story, but not the lead!

  5. Amen to that!

    It is SO hard to teach girls and women total self-worth. Many women would not find anything wrong with the article. I agree with Jeanie that if a man was primarily praised for his love of family and domestic duties, that maybe it wouldn't be so bad when women are. But, that's not how it is. I hardly ever miss a comment that is patronizing or condescending to women and will point it out to my 3 teen-aged girls if they are with me. Sometimes, at least one of them won't get it and will tell me that I'm being such a feminist. Still, I nag on. And I tell them, "You'll understand better when Joe is sitting next to you in an office and making more money than you."

    1. It's so great that you're teaching your three teens to recognize comments that are patronizing or condescending, Anita! I know they're at the eye-rolling stage in their development, but it's important that they hear these lessons. Good for you!!

  6. Sometimes I think that women do additional harm to themselves --by their demands.... For example, women want to be treated EQUAL --yet they still expect men to respect them simply because they are women... Recently, we've heard the statement: "Never HIT a woman"..... WELL---why should that be said??? How about: "Never HIT anyone!" These days, men get criticized for saying anything to a woman --which some consider politically incorrect... I say: "It works both ways!" If women want to be equal--they need to act like it...

    BUT--all of this being said, I do agree with much of what you are saying about the way women are perceived.. Rather than praising one's accomplishments, we talk about what they look like. Women are even harder on other women than men are....I even find myself looking at a woman on TV and complaining about their hair or something...

    NO---I don't think we have come very far--when it comes to women and their rights.. In fact, we seem to be going backward in our country the past several years since we are becoming more and more divided and separated and non-accepting (races/cultures/men vs women/rich vs. poor/jobs/lifestyles/people's looks/religion/politics, etc. etc. etc.) .... I thought we were making huge progress by learning to accept one another and our differences and uniqueness in this country... But the past few years has divided us like crazy in every respect. We no longer celebrate our wonderful diversity --but we continually criticize someone who is different. It almost seems as if the Govt. wants us to have a country where we are ALL alike with the Government taking care of us... SCARY....

    Sorry---got off of the subject....


    1. Betsy, you're absolutely right: both genders deserve respect, kindness and consideration. I share your sadness about today's divisiveness. Sometimes I think it's a plan to keep us powerless through division.

  7. I adored her books and knew she was a respected scientist from my dear friend who is a retired biologist..Why can't the world get it that women are indeed brilliant...I know this world will be sadder without colleen mccollough..Our only child is a lovely lady, if one more person asks me if she is married and has kids I will slug them, I did not marry until late and had my only near my 30th birthday & my husband was 30 just before she was born, she works in a male dominated field and gets the pay and benefits she doesn't care what a man thinks of her only her boss and her paycheck which is usually more than her collegues, she has no use for people who are sexist, racist, against gays, lesbians, trangenders etc..We raised her a world that is going to have a female President and that will be wonderful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. How wonderful that you've raised a strong, accomplished, independent daughter! You can look at her and her emerging world and see so much hope for the future.

  8. "Eye rolling" How'd you know that? :)
    Thanks for the encouragement.

  9. The aim of media today is to distract. When people look at sports and spend time in gossip columns and rap, the less time they have for serious things which politically will affect their lives. Just look at all the money wasted in arguing in government. They don't know history or the difference between right or wrong and they don't listen to people who do because it is politically incorrect or because they will lose money and power doing that.
    So they push more useless news and keep repeating it day in and day out
    Government today is not there to govern but to look at and form the big picture which they call new world order. It will take a few generations to do but if we stand strong against it, it might be a better thing to do. Otherwise choices will be very limited to our children. We must teach more smarts to our kids.

  10. Right on -- and write on! -- sister. I rail against the very same things.

    We've come a long way, as the old ad used to say, and yet we struggle with the same things our mothers and grandmothers did.

    I do love your writing. :-)